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How to Create a Refugee Crisis

Patrick Kingsley’s latest book is an urgent appeal to humanity and reason.


Two summers ago, Hashem al-Souki, his wife, and their three sons were ready to board a smuggler’s dinghy at Egypt’s northern coast, bound for Europe. They never made it. After traveling for months to reach Egypt, they were detained by police as they waited on the beach to leave. And the boat never made it to Europe. It sank in the Mediterranean, drowning all 500 of its passengers. Eight months later, Hashem, a Syrian civil servant, would try the crossing again. He paid $2,000 to secure passage to Europe on another smuggler boat—a wooden dinghy, crammed with refugees, filled with screams and vomit and seawater. They would head across the Mediterranean to Italy. This time, Hashem’s family stayed behind in Egypt, planning to join Hashem in Europe later, by means that would carry a lower risk of ending in a watery grave.

THE NEW ODYSSEY by Patrick Kingsley
Guardian Faber Publishing, 368pp., $16.81

“You have to understand / that no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land,” wrote British-Somali poet Warsan Shire in her scathing examination of the current refugee crisis, “Home.” There were many children on Hashem’s boat, and thousands of boats like it have carried hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe over the last two years. Shire’s line is the epigraph of The New Odyssey, written by Guardian migration correspondent Patrick Kingsley, a critical assessment of Europe’s role in the global refugee crisis.

In every other chapter, Kingsley follows Hashem’s three-year journey from Syria to Sweden: through kidnapping and torture in his home country, arrest in Egypt, hellish Mediterranean passage, and fraught navigation through European border crossings. The chapters in between offer a broader narrative of the crisis, of which Hashem’s journey is synecdochic. The New Odyssey is a book about refugees that explains just how this historic movement of people became a crisis in the first place. Kingsley has offered up a fiercely convincing, exasperated work that, like “Home,” urges understanding the obvious. To quote Shire: “No one wants to be beaten/ pitied / No one chooses refugee camps / or strip searches where your / body is left aching or prison / because prison is safer / than a city of fire... no one would leave home / unless home chased you to the shore.”

The book functions as an overview and an explainer of a global catastrophe, which, up until now, has only been told in discrete news stories. By pulling together a continuous, clear narrative, intercut with political analysis, Kingsley’s book has the potential to deliver a worthwhile political intervention. At a moment when Europe and the United States are showing their isolationist, protectionist colors, The New Odyssey exposes the subsequent human cost. Kingsley’s work gives lie to the humanitarian posturing of so-called “liberal project” Europe.

In 2015 alone, well over one million people—largely from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea—were willing to cross deserts on foot, risk capture and enslavement in Libya, barbed wire and internment in the Balkans, or drowning in the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe. This is the largest migration of refugees the continent has seen since the Second World War, driven in large part by Syrians fleeing the five-year-long civil war that has already displaced 9 million people. For the most part, the European establishment has responded with an approach of deterrence and blockage. The United States has done close to nothing at all.

In March, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia announced that they would close their borders in order to cut off the so-called “Balkan route,” used by several hundred thousand refugees trying to reach Northern Europe since last summer. Hungary and Austria have also shuttered their borders. Meanwhile, a legally murky and politically controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey went into effect in March, to return refugees to Turkey who entered Europe via the Aegean Sea smuggler route. And since last year, the EU has urged its member states to speed up the deportation of refused asylum seekers with the explicit attempt of deterring others. This battery of policies works together (or, more accurately, fails together) on the historically foolish and cruel assumption that desperate, displaced people will stop seeking a place of safety if it is hard enough to reach.

Kingsley has been covering refugee movement since 2014. Reporting from over 25 countries, his work has traced the geopolitical disasters that produce so many refugees, detailing who these displaced people are, the treacherous journeys they take, and the responses from the states they strive to reach. (Full disclosure: Kingsley and I have known each other since university.) Every aspect of his reporting has led the journalist to the same inescapable conclusion, which comes through as a constant refrain in The New Odyssey. “Politicians repeatedly ignored the reality of the situation—namely, that whether they are welcomed or not people will keep coming.”

This should be obvious to anyone paying attention to the harrowing journeys so many thousands of people continue to make. By highlighting the details of these refugee trails, and using Hashem’s as a particular example, Kingsley proves his point. It is not a call to humanity but a call for reason, aimed at the policy makers who fail to understand the crisis they have fostered.

“In a way, the refugee crisis is something of a misnomer,” writes Kingsley. “There is a crisis, but it’s one caused largely by our response to the refugees themselves.” His point is simple: Europe, population 500 million, has the resources and capacity to absorb a very large number of refugees. Last year, the UN estimated 850,000 refugees would try to reach Europe by sea—while the number was a low estimate, it’s still only 0.2 percent of Europe’s total population. As Kingsley recently reported for the Guardian, “Across Europe, leaders recently ripped up the 1951 refugee convention…”—ratified in the wake of World War II—“in order to justify deporting Syrians back to Turkey, a country where most can’t work legally, despite recent legislative changes; where some have allegedly been deported back to Syria; and still more have been shot at the border.”

For its part, America has largely watched from afar as the European Union has adopted shortsighted strategies to stop smugglers and deter refugees, unlike with previous refugee crises. (In the Indochina refugee crisis in the late 1970s, for example, the U.S. resettled 130,000 Vietnamese within a period of a few months.) Its inaction now is an abrogation of responsibility. The Obama administration’s weak offering to take in 10,000 more Syrian refugees in the next fiscal years only looks generous in contrast to the Islamophobic, isolationist invective of Donald Trump, and the U.S. governors who emptily threatened to block entry to all Syrians seeking asylum.

The reasons for fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and numerous sub-Saharan African countries have not abated—war, dictatorships, terrorism, and slavery are their main drivers. Which is why simply keeping refugees out of Europe doesn’t reduce their number. Instead, it increases the burden of resettlement on more unstable countries, like Lebanon, Jordan, and (to Europe’s disquieting relief) Turkey. In 2015, Lebanon housed “just under 1.2 million Syrian refugees within a population of roughly 4.5 million,” Kingsley writes. “That’s one in five people—a ratio that European leaders should have been embarrassed by.” Certainly, it makes a mockery of Germany’s alleged “Willkommenskultur,” the country’s stated policy of opening its border to a million refugees within a population of 82 million—before introducing more and more restrictive migration policies. And compared to the rest of Europe (and certainly the U.S.), the German approach looks saintly.

The New Odyssey captures approximately a year of the refugee crisis, which is far from over. Its arguments are pragmatic and appeal to the logic of the European political center: The coming of refugees can’t be stopped; it’s a recipe for future unrest and even extremism to subject a whole generation of displaced people to life in countries such as Lebanon or Turkey without the infrastructure for proper, respectful resettlement. Kingsley could have put forward this clear and reasoned analysis in a policy paper, not a book of moving reportage (and the human stories are certainly devastating and well told). But by telling the personal stories of numerous refugees, Kingsley delivers a compelling read with uncomplicated prose, while giving the reader all the more reason to trust his analysis. He has observed firsthand the consequences of Europe and the U.S. turning the wheels of history towards catastrophe.

The New Odyssey questions the politics and ethics of separating the “irregular migrants” trying to reach Europe into a taxonomy based on deservingness: the “economic migrant” or the “refugee.” He takes to task a rights discourse (refugees have rights, economic migrants don’t), which functions to stop human movement. “The point of delineating between different kinds of migration is to draw a line between who has the right to move and who doesn’t—and in turn to identify who has the right to move and who doesn’t,” Kingsley writes. “But in reality, history proves that prevention may not be possible, and so too does the current crisis.”

Kingsley’s intervention is not based on a primarily moral premise that it is wrong to sort humans into these categories. He intimates this, but his main argument is based in a deep pragmatism. If desperate, displaced people will keep coming, regardless of whether state powers deem them “refugee” or “economic migrant,” distinctions lose their usefulness.

With these sorts of reflections, The New Odyssey goes further than a journalistic explainer, and places itself in a pantheon of critical literature, which explores the refugee qua political subject. Without explicit reference, Kingsley echoes Hannah Arendt’s devastating 1943 point, that “contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings—the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and in internment camps by their friends.” Through his reporting, Kingsley reinforces the arguments of Italian theorist Giorgio Agamben, who highlighted how modern European history has proven how refugees are reduced to a state of bare life—humans reduced to bodies, their fates at the whims of a political system from which they themselves are excluded. As the old journalistic dictum implores, Kingsley shows this reduction to bare life, without telling.

The ease of international movement so many of us enjoy should make the miserable restrictions placed on refugees in Europe all the more intolerable. It’s something Kingsley explicitly notes, reflecting on his ability to move freely between 17 countries in one year while reporting for the book. He writes that in one week he “crossed nine borders while up to 1,300 other people died trying to cross just one.” The difference, as Francis Stonor Saunders so hauntingly put it in the London Review of Books, lies between the “biometric subject”, “verified down to our eyeballs,” and the refugee who gets to be a “biodegradable subject”—the unnamed, uncounted refugee who dies, unidentified, at sea.

Kingsley doesn’t go so far as to offer a critique of why the modern nation state, despite the promises of post-Schengen agreement Europe, is predicated on limiting the free movement of peoples. State formation is based on maintaining borders and aggressively delineating between self (citizen-sovereign) and other. A more extensive analysis of nation-state ideology would have perhaps left Kingsley less exasperated at the moral failings he observes, although he might not be less indignant. Nor would his key point about the foolishness and cruelty of deterrence strategies be any less relevant. However, it is precisely the nature of the protective nation state that means that, despite his commendable efforts, Kingsley is not likely to change the course of European or U.S. realpolitik with his book. But he has nonetheless done a service to the general reader in highlighting for us the injudicious actions of our governments; he’s handed us more than enough information to prompt our own political action towards aiding refugees and standing against barriers, borders, and bad policies.

In a telling passage, Kingsley recalls the words of a Nigerian plumber and pastor named Paul Ohioyah; they meet after Ohioyah is rescued “from near death at sea by Tunisian coast guards.” Ohioyah, who would likely fall under the maligned category of “economic migrant” because he is fleeing extreme poverty, not war, told Kingsley: “You need to tell us that we have a future. … You can’t escape us immigrants. We won’t stop trying. We won’t stop taking risks.” Kingsley might appeal to the better reason of politicians, but he leaves the moral responsibility squarely to us.